Do More With Less. Really? Maybe Time To Say No.

The boss gave you more balls but no additional arms.

The boss gave you more balls but no additional arms.

The boss gathers you around for that meeting. You know the one.

Carefully scripted with just the right dose of empathy for exiting staffers and an equal measure of appreciation for the lucky-to-still-be-employed.

And then it comes: “Well, I guess we’re just going to have to pull together and do more with less.”

Silently the room clears with heads hanging low. Not a soul calls out what everyone is thinking:

What are you? Nuts?”

How could someone in her right mind (let’s give her the benefit of the doubt) say such a thing when as a nonprofit staffer, you already have more to do than you have time to do it?

How can you stop the insanity? It’s actually really simple, in concept, though maybe not as easy in practice.

However, keep reading. First, I’ll frame the biggest reason for “Do-more-with-less-itis” and then I’ll give you some specific examples of how you can fix the problem.


It’s really that simple. Executive directors are pleasers. Everybody knows it. Your boss is no different. She’s all about pleasing the board and other key stakeholders. It’s not about the best possible way to fulfill your mission. It’s about being a CEO who does not cut services, even in the tough times. That shows strength and leadership, right?

Well actually, no it doesn’t. A topic for another day.

Then there are those pesky funders who seek out your organization to launch a new program that’s just right for you. Meanwhile, core admin staff has recently been laid off and everyone’s already doing more with less. Along comes a funder who thinks “Wow, what this organization needs is a big gymnasium for these homeless kids,” and offers a matching grant for ½ the money. Sure, you need this money but the gym wasn’t even on your priority list.


Senior staff have some of that same pleasing disease. And of course, we’re all hired to please our boss too. So there’s your double whammy.

But what everyone is forgetting is that saying no is not about insubordination; it’s about prioritization. It’s about doing your job. It’s about making decisions that are in the best interest of your clients, your mission.

So it’s time to exercise your “NO” muscle.


Go ahead. Try it. Say no.

Repeat after me.

1) The annual gala is tomorrow. I don’t care if Jim Bob the Board member is allergic to hyacinths. I am not changing all the centerpieces. He just won’t get one and I’ll stop by and apologize.

2) What a great idea for a new program but not now and not with my current staffing. I can spend an hour or two putting together a two pager that offers you smart talking points so that you can go back to that donor and explain why a valuable idea isn’t going to happen right now.

3) You’re at a senior staff meeting with the E.D. For some reason, none of you feel empowered to say no. The E.D. has learned about a grant for a new program that’s off mission and the proposal is due tomorrow. If you can’t work together as a team with each of you weighing in on why no is not insubordinate but smart for the organization, then stop calling yourself a team because you are just a collection of individuals with more self interest than mission focus.

4) You’re on the board recruitment committee and your ED thinks a prospect is great – he’s ready to write a $10,000 check. But, you’ve heard that this guy is toxic, high maintenance, and may have a substance abuse problem. Don’t just say no. Offer a solution. Be a truth teller and then problem solve for your boss. “Here’s how we can engage this guy so he doesn’t make your life miserable.”


When you say no:

a) Have talking points your boss can use to bolster the “no” case to whomever is pushing.

b) Work together to say no as a team.

c) Problem solve for your boss.


I have this saying I use with my clients: If you don’t learn how to say no, your organization simply becomes a conglomeration of half-assed yeses.

As a donor, as a client, as a stakeholder, I want real solid yeses. Because yeses of the half-assed variety aren’t really yeses at all.


1. In the comments below, let me know your favorite stories about saying “no” (or about that time you wish you had said no!)

2. If you liked this post and think others would too, can I ask you to please share it?

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Joan Garry
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Joan Garry

Widely known as the "Dear Abby" of nonprofit leadership, Joan works with board and staff as a strategic advisor, crisis manager, change agent and strategic planner. Joan also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on nonprofit communications and leadership.
Joan Garry
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  • Julia Wilson

    Reading this was painful……in the BEST way possible. You nailed it. It was like holding up a mirror (being the ED who can’t say no……..). So glad you offered practical tips for change, because otherwise I’d just be swimming around feeling guilty – thank you for the wake-up call AND the steps to take to move in a difference direction!

  • Phew. At first I thought you found my writing painful. Glad it was good pain 🙂 Let me know if my tips help you. This kind of feedback is really helpful to me and to my tribe of readers.

  • clauren

    As a manager I had to walk this very fine line between pleasing boards, donors, members and other well-intentioned types and being effective with the resources we had. Thanks for writing this, even when you know the best answer is No, it can be tough to get the words out in the best way.

    • Just worked with a client whose executive director had a poor tactical idea. My client asked the ED a simple question: “What problem are you trying to solve?” Once the problem was clear, my client could propose OTHER more workable and possibly more impactful solutions. Another way to approach the challenge.

  • So true Clauren. That said, the ability to say no is literally mission critical

  • And of course, who is first to go? Fundraising staff. And that makes sense why…?

    • Because you have to roll someone under the bus eh? And board members are often reluctant to take responsibility for their role in revenue shortfalls!

  • Ruth Mott

    Great post Joan! The only thing I would add is one more way to say no without necessarily sacrificing your job -. Whatever is asked of you say, “sure” or “yes” but follow it with, “We can totally do that and here’s what we will need to do it”. It works.

    • Ruth. OK, so you will find me to be a direct blogger. Your language is, from start to finish, YES. There is nothing NO about your retort. I understand that when you lay out “what you need” it will be so daunting that you expect the board member or funder to totally get it and agree that it can’t be done. But remember that often when you get a YES, you stop listening. I’d love to hear more about how this strategy has worked for you though. Just sounds risky to this here blogger.

  • jahphotogal

    Another great post. The one about the toxic potential board member hit home for another reason – add this to the list of articles I hope you write one day: donor offering a multi-million dollar gift (this to an org whose largest gift to date has been 25,000.) It’s for a building, which we desperately need. But he’s a serious substance abuser who sends crazy toxic emails late at night when he’s sloshed. He has the money, 100 times over. And he’s been philanthropic before, though not on this scale. I think he’s genuine in his desire to do this for us. But he’s very controlling in addition to everything else, and my board wants nothing to do with him. I guess the situation is too particular to be a good topic for an article – but it’s a huge challenge and I need my board to switch into problem solving/new ideas mode, fast.

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  • Sarah

    Our new question is “Can we break up with that donor?” Sometime donors, especially, are high maintenance and cause more trouble than their money or engagement is worth.